The enigmatic rise of Yevgeny Prigozhin: From convict to catalyst of chaos

With grit, hellfire rage and intellect, he tested the foundation of Putin' power

Russia Wagner Yevgeny Prigozhin, the owner of the Wagner Group military company, records his video addresses in Rostov-on-Don, Russia | AP

Deep in the entrails of Mother Russia, a figure would rise to run through its veins and threaten the bosom core of the Putin state — a ruthless master mercenary whose early past in petty crime and prison belies the immense power he wielded. 

With persistent grit, hellfire rage and fury, and cunning intellect, he almost plunged Russia into the abyss of civil war, sending tremors across the globe and testing the very foundations of Putin's hold on power. This is the story of a man whose actions danced on the edge of an international precipice, leaving a trail of death, intrigue, fear, and uncertainty in his wake. Meet Yevgeny Viktorovich Prigozhin, the enigmatic founder of the Wagner Group whose infernal audacity and wily powerplays have sent shockwaves pushing his country to the brink of chaos and had the world holding its breath.

He was born on June 1, 1961, in Leningrad, Soviet Union, now Saint Petersburg, Russia. His mother was a doctor and his father, Viktor Yevgenyevich Prigozhin. As a mining engineer, he navigated the depths of the world to explore and extract valuable minerals. Yevgeni was nine when he died. 

It was during these formative years that Yevgeny's young mind was imprinted with the impermanence of life and the relentless march of life.

To understand Prigozhin today it is important to understand his family legacy. His grandfather, Yevgeny Ilyich Prigozhin, was a captain in the Red Army, casting his lot amidst the crucible of World War II. While the strains of Judaism do not directly run through his veins, they do add another strand of significance to Prigozhin's young life as his father and stepfather, men who played pivotal roles in influencing his thoughts and shaping his upbringing, were both Jewish.

For several of his childhood years, Yevgeny lived with his great-uncle, Soviet scientist Yefim Ilyich Prigozhinru in the Ukrainian city of Zhovti Vody. There, he worked in an open-pit uranium mine, a physical job in an extremely isolated location where life was hard and fraught with danger such as cave-ins, explosions, and the danger of toxic exposure.

When his mother remarried, Samuil Fridmanovich Zharkoi became his stepfather. He was a ski instructor who introduced him to cross-country skiing, and it was through his influence that Yevgeny attended the storied Leningrad Sports Boarding School No. 62, one of the great Soviet athletic institutions.  

It was life in an imposing edifice, rising impressively amidst the city's grandeur and architectural splendour. It remains a bastion of disciplined training, intellectual growth, and a relentless pursuit of what they deem "excellence in sports and life." It is today a powerful Olympic training school, having produced winners of multiple gold, silver and bronze medals. 

The school's mandate was clear: to identify, cultivate, and refine the athletic prowess of its select students. "An unwavering passion for competitive disciplines, and an indomitable spirit" are prerequisites for admission which was already reserved for students who proved exceptional skills and potential through a rigorous selection process, with a heavy emphasis placed on physical fitness and passion in competitive disciplines. 

The students were constantly challenged to excel and transcend their limitations, to strive for greatness, say former students. It is a transformative environment. Graduates are said to embody the essence of grit, determination, and excellence in all fields and the game of life. Prigozhin aspired to become a professional skier.

"Stubborn, persistent, and overly active," described his former classmate Alexei, to Vesiskitim, the portal for the city of Iskitim in the Novosibirsk region of far-east Russia. "Of course, he was drawn to his studies, but since our class was a sports class, sports were not just in the first place, but in the super-first place," said Alexei.  "Yevgeny was always surprising."

Alexei, who preferred to use his first name only, also shared myth-making anecdotes that, when in the context of other observations about Prigozhin, show the dimensions and complexities of the man. 

"There was severe frost in the late '70s, and many students quit the competition, but he ran to the end. He even got frostbite, not serious frostbite, of course, but frostbite just the same." 

He was well-read, he continued, "and teachers knew they could rely on him for any kind of social activities. Always stood up for those who were being bullied." 

Prigozhin graduated school in 1977 at the age of 16, but he abandoned his quest to become a professional skier after an injury that would take too long to heal. He later worked as a fitness trainer at a children's sports school.

It was during this time that Prigozhin's trajectory took an unexpected turn, leading him down a path shadowed by illicit activities and a growing risk appetite. He was engaging in small crimes and diving into that treacherous underworld and showed a willingness to traverse the darkest paths.

In February 1980, he made headlines for breaking into an apartment and stealing property valued at 177 rubles, equivalent to approximately US$600 today. It marked the start of a crime spree, one that began at the McLean Avenue place of a man described in court records as citizen Osipov. Prigozhin was reported to have caused "significant material damage to the victim." 

His outlaw exploits continued in March 1980, with a series of burglaries and assaults. On March 1 that year, he was seen at the scene of a failed burglary on Leningrad’s Ropshinskaya street breaking the windows but running off after he was noticed by residents.

The next night he and a crime partner burglarised another apartment on Ropshinskaya street, stealing crystal, a radio, and other goods, netting some US$3,000, also "causing the victims significant material damage," as per court records.

On March 2, at night, Bushman and Prigozhin, by conspiracy and a group, committed the theft of personal property from apartment 2 at 12 Ropshinskaya Street, owned by the Telitsins: a tape recorder, a radio, two carpet tracks, crystal and other things, totalling 980 rubles, causing the victims significant material damage.

Less than two weeks later, on March 14, records show he used a crowbar in leading a group of accomplices as they broke the doors to get into an apartment on Leningrad’s 28 Street where they stole bonds, cash, and varied items of value. On March 19, Prigozhin broke the front door to apartment an Bryantsev Street with a tire iron, but then, fearing that the alarm might go off, they fled the scene.

The next day in the evening Prigozhin and a group of friends were at Leningrad’s Ocean restaurant, a high-end seafood eatery along the shores of the exquisite Neva River. At around midnight, they spotted a woman whom they decided to target. One of his accomplices distracted her by asking her for a cigarette, when she opened her handbag and was looking for the smoke Prigozhin grabbed her by the neck from behind and began to choke her and drag her away from view as others threatened her with the blade of a knife. When she tried to scream, Prigozhin tightened his strangle until she lost consciousness. While one of his accomplices removed her boots, Prigozhin ripped the gold earrings off her ears before fleeing the scene, leaving her earlobes raw from the unusually brutal force. The stint netted him some $60 worth of loot.

It was another crime he committed the same day that got him caught. He promised to sell a pair of jeans to a man, took his money, 250 Rubles, and then disappeared. For this crime, he was identified, arrested, linked to other crimes, convicted, and sentenced to 13 years in prison. 

The young Prigozhin was lodged in one of Russia's tough prisons in the Komi Republic along the flat, featureless basin of the Pechora River, some 21 hours north of Moscow.

 It was while serving his prison sentence that Prigozhin proved himself as a charismatic and resourceful leader. Inside, he became the head of a group of convicts involved in manufacturing souvenirs, jewellery boxes and calendars, which was a lucrative prison venture. Despite the harsh conditions, Prigozhin demonstrated remarkable resilience and a curiosity for knowledge.  

He continued his avid reading and, says his former cellmate Roman Yevgenievich, "He stood up for those who were being bullied," he told Vesiskitim and the Russian website 

In the darkest corners of prison life, where the strong prey upon the weak and where no one is safe, however, Prigozhin emerged as an unexpected defender of the vulnerable. Reports say he showed a sense of compassion and a willingness to protect others, further revealing a paradox in the complexities that reside within him.

"He worked out, though it was not allowed officially," said Yevgenievich. "He was hard-working and never avoided work, fought for justice –his own version of justice- on every occasion even though it entailed conflicts with the prison management. He stood up for people who were being bullied." 

Yevgenievich also told a story of when Prigozhin saved some Latin American guy who’d been locked up in a fridge, despite constantly being punished by prison guards and once ending up in a solitary cell for six months.

Most surprising to everyone, however, was Prigozhin's expressed desire to return to a normal life once he was released, explicitly choosing not to involve himself in any criminal projects proposed by his former cellmate. He dreamed of studying medicine after prison and curing AIDS. It was a glimpse of a potential redemption, a flicker of light in the dark tunnel of years in prison. 

Though appeals to his sentence failed, in 1990, after serving nearly nine years of his sentence, Prigozhin was granted amnesty and released from prison, something not unusual in Russia.

Indeed, he would later study biochemistry and pharmacology at the Leningrad Chemical and Pharmaceutical Institute, though he did not graduate.

It was at that time that Yevgenievich, his ex-cellmate, told the website that he ran into him and asked him to join in his criminal activities. Prigozhin said no, according to Yevgenievich, "He didn’t want to stain his reputation even more." He suggested they do some legal business instead, like for instance opening a casino. 

Then rebuilding his life, he started a business empire from scratch. He and his stepfather repurposed an old trolley and parked it in Apraksin Dvor, a historic commercial complex in the heart of the city that has stood as a symbol of trade and commerce for centuries. They started selling hotdogs from there with a mustard they were making at home, reportedly making so much money it was hard for his mother to count.

He soon became the manager of Contrast, St Petersburg’s first supermarket chain, founded by his boarding school friend Boris Spektor who grew up in a house opposite Putin’s on Basksov Lane.

Under Prigozhin, the chain gained a reputation for being well-organised and for providing high-quality goods and a great shopping experience. Eventually, Prigozhin obtained a one-seventh share of the company. 

After five years at Contrast, Prigozhin decided to go into the restaurant business and in 1996 opened a place called Old Customs in the building of the prominent Peter the Great Kunstkamera Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography with another friend, Kirill Ziminov. 

Before that, Evgeny had already owned a "demo version" of the restaurant, the Wine Club bar/store. Prigozhin kept looking for new business opportunities, and after "Old Customs" came a series of ventures, "Russian Kitsch", "Seven Forty" and "Stroganovsky Palace".

In the same year, the restaurateur gathered all his establishments under one legal entity and founded Concord Catering, which would go on to organise elaborate banquets and celebrations in various cities, including Russia, Milan, Venice, and Paris. They have even hosted an event at the North Pole with a high degree of quality of complexity.  

Inspired by foreign restaurateurs, Prigozhin purchased an old motor vessel for $50,000 and invested another $400,000 in creating the "New Island" on the Vyatka River, a spectacular floating restaurant among an ongoing flow of ships that became an institution favoured by Russia’s elites and one of Putin’s favourites.

It was there, Prigozhin claimed in a 2011 interview with the Russian site, that he met Putin, who celebrated his 2003 birthday at the restaurant. "Vladimir Putin saw how I made a business out of a stall. He saw how I do not disdain to personally bring a plate to the crowned persons because they came to visit me," he told online812. "We met when he arrived with Japanese Prime Minister Mori, then with Bush. And before that, Sergei Stepashin met with the President of the International Monetary Fund Komdesyu, and it just so happened that in my presence Yeltsin called Stepashin and said: "Seryozha, don't come back without a loan." And I tried my best.”

Government catering and school contracts in Moscow were soon awarded to his Concord Catering company, and he received the nickname of "Putin's chef." In 2017, an investigation revealed that Prigozhin allegedly secured state contracts worth at least Є2.5 billion including one to distribute food to the Russian army. This was the first link between Prigozhin and the military forces.

Eventually, Prigozhin's activities, according to a 2022 investigation by Bellingcat, The Insider, and Der Spiegel, came to be "tightly integrated with Russia's Defense Ministry and its intelligence arm, the GRU."

But to understand that, it is necessary to understand the rise of the Wagner Group, which was initially patterned after the US’s Blackwater Private Military Company utilised by President George W. Bush, which operated in Iraq and Afghanistan providing an arm’s length deniability for government actions. 

The group was said to have been founded in 2014 by Dmitri Utkin, a former Russian military officer and veteran of several conflicts, also known as Dmitry Wagner (code name Wagner), who is said to have adopted the pseudonym "Wagner" as a codename or a callsign within the group. In 2017, however, Utkin denied he had anything to do with the Wagner Group. In November, he became CEO of Concord.

Prigozhin initially and for a long time denied any connection with Wagner, stating that he was "extremely surprised by the very fact of the existence of this company and has nothing to do with its activities."

Pregozhin even sued Alexei Venediktov, the editor-in-chief of Ekho Moskvy (listed by the Russian Ministry of Justice as a foreign agent) for calling him the "boss" of the organization on the air.  In August 2022, Prigozhin won the trial, and in September, he admitted that he was, in fact, the head of the Wagner Grup, saying that he "did not want to jeopardise the other participants of the organisation."

Then, in October last year, the establishment of the "PMC Wagner Center" in St. Petersburg announced it "will employ specialists in the field of defence and information technology to improve the defence capabilities of Russia."

But Wagner, despite being led by led by a cadre of experienced military leaders who bring their expertise and tactics to the forefront, is at its ranks, a convict army, that recruited heavily among Russian prisons.

The Russian site reported that Wagner preferentially recruited violent prisoners to be sent to the front lines, promising amnesty after six months and that around 50,000 prisoners may have been recruited.

When recruiting, preference was given to violent prisoners convicted under serious articles of the Criminal Code, such as "murder," "robbery," "robbery," and "grievous bodily harm," as well as to repeat offenders. This message was soon confirmed by Medizone, through stories of some imprisoned prisoners who claimed Prigozhin himself travelled to prisons and offered to sign a contract, promising amnesty after six months. Those who refused were presented with new charges and intimidated into accepting the bargain.

Much of the world first took notice of Wagner's activities when reports of "little green men" soldiers without insignia (implausible deniability) showed in eastern Ukraine’s Crimea region, ostensibly to support Russian separatists, leading the way for the eventual occupation and annexation of the peninsula by Russia. 

The Ukrainian security services first began to talk about finding evidence of Wagner's work in 2014. According to their information, the PMC was found in Donbas. They allegedly participated in the destruction of Ilyushin-76 in eastern Ukraine in June 2014, the storming of Donetsk airport and combat operations near Debaltseve.

The next time their appearance raised eyebrows was in 2015 after involvement in the Syrian conflict, fighting alongside the forces of Bashar al-Assad's government. While the Russian government did not officially acknowledge the company, it is widely speculated to be an unnamed private contractor associated with Russian interests. Plausible deniability for strategic reasons.

In 2016, Wagner appeared again in conflict in the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine, actively participating in combat operations on the side of the separatists, demonstrating fierce ruthlessness and effectiveness on the battlefield.

By 2017 global media was reporting allegations of war crimes a widely circulated video showed Wagner troops using a sledgehammer to crush the knees and hands of a Syrian fighter who is said to have died of the injuries. This was the type of fear that the militant ISIS fighters induced in populations to get them to submit.

Wagner has been active in several countries in Africa and the Middle East. It has operated in Sudan since 2017, training Sudanese troops, guarding mineral resources, and suppressing dissent against the government of President Omar al-Bashir, ostensibly in exchange for gold. In Libya, its troops who fought alongside the Libyan National Army during its 2019 Tripoli campaign and stand accused of committing extrajudicial killings and planting landmines in civilian areas.

In Mozambique, Wagner has supported the army in its fight against the Islamist militant insurgency in the north. Wagner has been reported in Kurdistan and Mali, though the record there is sketchy at best.

In 2018, documentary filmmaker Alexander Rastorguev, war correspondent Orkhan Dzhemal, and cameraman Kirill Radchenko went to Africa to shoot a documentary project and were killed. According to the official version, they were attacked by robbers. In turn, the publication "Dosie" published an investigation in which it tied the murder of the journalists to Prigozhin. He denied the accusation.

In 2019, the Wagner Group's made its footprint in South America, entering combat operations in Venezuela in support of President Nicolas Maduro during a political crisis. They are reported to have provided personal security for Maduro and trained elite Venezuelan units. The Russian state denied any links between itself and Wagner. 

In January 2023, the U.S. declared the Wagner PMC a transnational criminal organisation. In response, Prigozhin wrote a letter to the White House with a request to clarify what crimes were committed by this organisation. 

It was Prigozhin’s Internet Research Group with its relentless troll farms that added a new dimension to his role in Wagner, having played a crucial role in pitting the American electorate against itself, created animosity against Putin foe Hillary Clinton and helped put Donald Trump in the White House.

Wagner’s role in Ukraine has been widely credited with many of the advances in the stalled Russian invasion, accompanied by reports of ruthless fighting and accusations that its mercenaries have been sent into a meatgrinder, without appropriate Russian support. Accusations that were at the root of the disagreement between Prigozhin and the way Russia was waging the war triggered the insurrection that led to the events that riveted the world for its open challenge to Putin’s authority.

With a cascade of audacious moves, Prigozhin pushed the boundaries of what seemed possible, defying conventional norms and embracing the chaos that followed in his wake. His ascent to become a master mercenary was marked by daring risks and sacrifices of the lives of his fighters, unexpected alliances, and pursuit of dominance, a trait that began early on. Prigozhin's taste for power, a quest for “justice” as he sees it, and his ability to manipulate situations to his advantage placed him at the epicentre of a storm that threatened the very fabric of the Putin state.


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